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Howard Sherman: Airport-style security has landed on Broadway but will audiences fly away?

Metal detectors at a Broadway theatre entrance. Photo: Howard Sherman Metal detectors at a Broadway theatre entrance. Photo: Howard Sherman
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For reasons entirely unknown to me, Broadway theatre audiences began, some time ago, queuing up outside theatres some 45 minutes or more before showtime.

Since houses typically open only 30 minutes before curtain up, and few theatres have lobbies of any appreciable size, this has meant that in several cases lines run down the block.

On streets where there are adjacent theatres, it’s often impossible to tell one line from another. It’s like audience members are expecting to snag the best seats, like attending a movie, rather than their pre-assigned reserved seats, theirs no matter when they turn up.

Of course, as the security bag check became standard practice, there’s been some logic to arriving with some leeway, lest everyone be caught in the same crush of people awaiting their examination.

I will say that unlike my colleague Richard Jordan, I have found the security staff carrying out bag checks on Broadway, and during my recent West End jaunt, to be polite and efficient, if only slightly brusque to keep lines moving and get the show up on time. But the addition of this process still didn’t explain these absurdly early arrivals as they became commonplace.

Now I’m starting to wonder whether arriving particularly early won’t become a necessity. I say this because, for the first time in my experience, I have seen airport style magnetometers deployed at a Broadway theatre (albeit without bag X-ray machines), though patrons need not empty their pockets before entering the metal scanning machines.

I spotted one outside the Walter Kerr Theatre where Springsteen on Broadway has set up shop and I am informed by the show’s publicist that they are in place for every performance.

Unexpectedly coming upon the enhanced security setup while taking a shortcut through the passageway in which it sits startled me, because it confirmed what has perhaps been coming since the attacks of 9/11 in terms of ever-increasing security.

That I happened upon this system only days after the Las Vegas attack that killed and injured so many was at once inevitable and upsetting, yet another indication of how the political attachment to guns in this country undermines so much else.

As Charles McNulty wrote so eloquently in the Los Angeles Times one day after the mass shooting, “The Second Amendment can’t continue to supersede the First Amendment, which guarantees ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble.’ The right, in other words, to be an American in a functioning democracy. To be an audience.”

It is too early to say whether what I saw adjacent to the Walter Kerr Theatre will become standard operating procedure for all Broadway shows. From a practical perspective, it’s not terribly feasible, for the very same reasons that queues snake down streets: in most cases, there’s simply no room.

Airports, of course, have long been designed for security checks, and while I was packed into an uncomfortable mass of humanity trying to get through security last summer for a Billy Joel concert at Madison Square Garden, I imagine that facilities of that size and greater have continued to refine their systems, though I’ve not had occasion to test it.

Efforts to restrict the proliferation of guns in American society have been beaten back by the reprehensible political clout of the National Rifle Association and the politicians beholden to them.

If 93 gun deaths a day don’t sway political stances, even as it sickens those of us who don’t see unfettered gun ownership as some divine right, it’s unlikely that inconvenienced theatregoers will have the slightest impact.

It’s unsurprising to see heavily armoured police officers stationed in Times Square nowadays and so it’s impossible not to imagine that the security presence will only continue to increase in response to threats known and unknown, foreign and domestic.

But for Broadway the question is whether at some point the combination of ever-rising prices and the procedures that are, apparently, regrettably necessary for safety will serve to undermine attendance, giving audiences yet more reason to avoid gathering together for the unique pleasure of the live experience in favour of just staying at home.

This week in US theatre

The 1998 Dreamworks animated version of the Moses story, The Prince of Egypt, makes its stage debut at Theatreworks in Palo Alto, California tomorrow night.

As with the movie, the stage version features a score by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz and a book by screenwriter Philip LaZebnik. Schwartz’s son Scott directs.

When Harvey Fierstein’s triptych of one-act plays debuted as a single evening, it was known as Torch Song Trilogy.

It won the Tony Award for Best Play and ran for three years at Broadway’s Little Theatre (later renamed the Helen Hayes) and made Fierstein a star as both performer and playwright.

The show’s first major New York revival is being undertaken by Second Stage, which this spring will reopen the Helen Hayes as their Broadway home. However, the play, renamed Torch Song, runs at the company’s Off-Broadway venue, just a block away, opening Thursday.

Michael Urie takes on Fierstein’s role of Arnold Beckoff, with Mercedes Ruehl as his mother, under the direction of Moises Kaufman.

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